Gabourey Sidibe knows how to take the stage at a national television talk show. Laughing and dancing her way onto the set at the Ellen show earlier this week she busted out moves that were choreographed by her roommate just in case she ever got a chance to appear on the talk show. Smiling broadly and laughing, she had the audience loudly cheering her on, not unlike her experience at many film festivals this year.
Newcomer actress Sidibe has had quite a ride since Sundance, one that many aspiring actresses might consider a fantasy. Reached by telephone in Los Angeles on Tuesday, she had recently flown in from the U.K. where she attended the London Film Festival for her lead role in “Precious” directed by Lee Daniels. Since its premiere back in January at the Sundance Film Festival, the reaction and trajectory of the film has been about as good as it gets. After being picked up by Lionsgate after Park City – in an economic era when bigtime acquisitions are even rarer then they were in indie’s heyday – it went on to Cannes’ Un Certain Regard.
“In Cannes, we got an insanely long standing ovation,” Sidibe, 26, told indieWIRE. “It was amazing. It was such an honor considering they don’t always stand up, and it was a surprise because this is such an American film. We weren’t sure if the translation would work.”
Set in Harlem in 1987, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” (which opens in theaters next week), features Sidibe as the heart-wrenching Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese sixteen year-old African-American girl who is pregnant for the second time by her otherwise absent father. At home, she is constantly ridiculed and abused by her tragic mother, played by Mo’Nique, who has made her daughter into an indentured servent. With no money or emotional support and falling horribly behind in school, Precious is by all appearances destined to a forgotten caste surrounded by welfare offices and misery. Yet, beneath the hopeless surface, she is a savvy girl who still dreams and believes in possibilites. She is given a chance at an alternative school taught by a caring yet firm teacher (Paula Patton) and the emotional nightmare she faces at home is alleviated somewhat by a supportive social worker, played splendidly by pop diva Mariah Carey.
“This was really something that fell in my lap,” said Sidibe who was given the part after she only happened to attend an open casting call, receiving a follow up immediately afterward. “I got a call about it from a friend, and I had class the same day. I should’ve gone to class, but I sort of ended up [heading there]. I was on autopilot.”
She also felt a kinship with the character she’d ultimately play, having been exposed to similar situations as Precious. She was born in Brooklyn, and grew up in Harlem.
“The thing about Precious, she’s so far from a Hollywood character. She’s so honest and real, I definitely felt like I knew her. I also felt guilt because I’ve done the same thing as some of the people she [has relationships with] in the film. I’ve ignored people who I should’ve helped. Precious is ignored by the system, parents, friends and everyone who should’ve been there to help.”
And with the backdrop of her own experience, Sidibe took to the role and found herself fully within her element on set in late 2007, after some initial butterflies. “It was certainly my first time on any movie set, [but] it was the best time of my life. I was never in my trailer – my very teeny-tiny trailer. I was always out on the set, even when I wasn’t suppose to be…” Sidibe continued saying that she was obviously green when she first arrived for work, and intimidated.
“When I saw how many people it takes to make a film – arriving on the set and seeing so many crew – I knew that if I got too scared, I’d become paralyzed. So I just tried to swim and not think…”
And Sidibe took role she delivered a rapturous performance along with her fellow, more well-known co-stars. Back in January, she took to the stage to accept an acting prize for Mo’Nique at awards night in Sundance and she also received her own very affectionate applause as she faced the audience to represent her co-star.
And as she did back then, Sidibe praised her fellow cast in her chat with iW Tuesday. “It was awesome [working with them]. It’s great when you meet people you think are cool and they turn out to be cooler then you expected. I’ve seen the opposite happen – but they were awesome.”
Following Sundance and Cannes, the “Precious” crew continued on to Toronto in September, this time with new executive producer Oprah Winfrey in town to promote the film. Sidibe appeared alongside the talk show superstar, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige and Daniels. Then late last week, Sidibe was front and center on the New York Times with a huge Magazine story on the film. With all of its festival and media attention throughout the year, expectations are obviously heightened, but Sidibe still seems in awe of it all.
“It was an honor, I mean, just to be on the cover of anything. I don’t expect to be on the cover of anything,” Sidibe said with a hint of nervous laughter, but then added with a tone that might have been words coming from Precious. “I think people look at me and don’t expect much. Even though, I expect a whole lot.”